Anger and outrage in Washington over sexual abuse by United Nations and other international peacekeepers has reached a new boiling point, with more ugly revelations of assault surfacing even as members of both Houses of Congress pondered ways -- including the withholding of U.S. money -- to do something about it.
The legislators drew no conclusions, while U.S. diplomats, U.N. whistle-blowers, think tank experts and staunch U.N. advocates universally deplored the charges of sex crimes and abuse and offered suggestions, sometimes at cross-purposes, about what to do about them.
Even as the lawmakers pondered, an independent watchdog organization charged as many as 41 previously unreported cases of alleged sexual abuse by U.N. and non-U.N. international military forces had been discovered during recent U.N. investigations in the Central African Republic, but were being downplayed in what the group AIDS-Free World called “exercises in evasion.”
The new allegations came atop nearly 100 cases, stretching back as far as three years, that the same group revealed less than two weeks earlier.
AIDS-Free World, which has published numerous confidential U.N. documents on the sex crime issue over the past year, cited a coded U.N. cable, which it said came on April 7 to U.N. headquarters from its peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic.
The cable, which AIDS-Free World said its sources “quoted, but did not send to us in its original form,” allegedly summarized finds from an “integrated team” of U.N. investigators in a remote corner of the country. Though the message was in U.N. hands, its contents, the organization charged, had not been revealed in subsequent U.N. briefings on the sexual assault issue.
Questioned about the allegations, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s press spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, denied withholding any information about them, but tacitly acknowledged delays in reporting new charges. “With allegations of sexual abuse that we take extremely seriously, one also has to be as meticulous as possible in handling numbers, in handling and interviewing victims, and it's exactly what we are doing,” he told a press briefing.
Dujarric put the total number of recently-uncovered sexual abuse allegations at 108, and said, “I would not be surprised if that number goes up a bit.” Dujarric added that “we have been keeping Member States, including the United States, very much up to date on where we are. “
However the U.N. says it is handling the sex crimes charges, the level of frustration in Washington with what one U.S. official called the “cancer” of blue-helmet sexual abuse is clearly rising fast among the lawmakers, who are keenly aware that the U.S. is the largest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping expenses, to the tune of $2.37 billion this year alone.
“If I heard right now that a U.N. peacekeeping mission was going to North Chattanooga today, which is where my wife is, I would be on the first plane out of here to go home and protect her,” declared Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during a three-hour hearing on the issue.
“I am disgusted by the actions of U.N. peacekeepers that American taxpayers are paying for, and I hope that somehow we’ll figure out a way to reel this in,” he said.
“Protectors can never be predators,” declared Congressman Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chaired a simultaneous hearing of a House International Affairs subcommittee on the U.N. sexual abuse issue issue -- while recalling that he had taken part in a virtually identical hearing on the same problem ten years ago.
“If I heard right now that a UN peacekeeping mission was going to North Chattanooga today, which is where my wife is, I would be on the first plane out of here to go home and protect her.”
The legislators were joined by a chorus of U.N. critics and supporters, some of whom brought testimony of longstanding cover ups, bureaucratic lethargy, persecution of whistle-blowers, and a culture of impunity among peacekeepers that have contributed to fostering such crimes -- amply documented in the recent past.
Where they differed was on what to do about it.
According to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Isobel Coleman, the way to deal with what she called the “urgent, and shameful,” sex abuse issue was largely to stay the course in bolstering U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, as he struggles, so far without impressive results, to confront the problem.
Coleman, the point person for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in dealing with the issue, pointed to Ban’s recent decision to name countries that contribute peacekeepers where allegations are firmly established. (The most frequently named countries put forward by Ban for last year: Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, South Africa.)
She also pointed to new authority Ban has gotten from the U.N. Security Council to send home all troops or police whose native country dawdles in investigating sex crime allegations, or fails to take action against perpetrators.
“If countries do not take appropriate action, they should not be included in peacekeeping,” she told the Senate committee.
She called full implementation of the Security Council measure “a means of powerful prevention” for “ending once and for all the culture of impunity in peacekeeping that has persisted for too long.”
Whether and how Ban will use those powers is still open to skepticism, especially in light of the ongoing spate of allegations and even Coleman called Ban’s name-and-shame policy “long overdue.”
Coleman was backed up before the Senate committee by Tracey Jacobson, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizational Affairs in Washington, and Maj. Gen. Michael Rothstein, a top official in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.
The duo emphasized continuing diplomatic pressure and the leverage of U.S. peacekeeper training efforts in some 50 countries as additional tools for clamping down on abuse. Nonetheless, Rothstein declared, “greater efforts must be undertaken.”
Maybe a lot greater. A sobering counterpoint came from Miranda Brown, a former senior official at the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), where sexual abuse allegations are often compiled.
According to Brown, “sexual abuse in peacekeeping missions” -- pure U.N. forces, joint forces with regional organizations, and non-U.N. forces operating under U.N. mandate -- “is vastly under-reported, with bottlenecks for reporting at various stages inside and outside the U.N.”
“Bottlenecks” could also be an understatement. Brown told senators that U.N. human rights staffers attached to peacekeeping missions “have their own fears, both about their physical safety as well as their own job security,” in investigating sex abuse charges.
Among other things, she noted, “security within and outside [refugee] camps is often maintained by the peacekeepers -- meaning that human rights investigators -- who receive little specific training-- may depend on the colleagues of people they are investigating for protection.
Peacekeeping mission leadership is also part of the problem. Top mission officials “frequently ignored” reports of sexual abuses for “political reasons,” Brown testified, including fears of “withdrawal of troops that are needed by the mission.”
As a consequence, Brown said, “human rights officers have often appeared as troublemakers to the mission leadership” -- and beyond.
Brown knows well what she is talking about. As she testified, she lost her own job at OHCHR, and is still seeking reinstatement, after supporting Anders Kompass, her OHCHR superior, who brought the sexual abuse swamp back into the public eye in December 2014.
At that time, he passed on to French diplomats unredacted testimony from children as young as 9 about their abuse by French and African peacekeepers in the Central African Republic in 2013 and 2014.
Kompass was suspended for violating U.N. protocols, then reinstated by a U.N. tribunal while an investigation against him went forward.
Eventually, an independent panel appointed by Secretary General Ban last December blasted the U.N., including specific high-level officials, for its inaction and deliberate cover up of the abuse accusations, a major reason, along with the outpouring of revelations ever since, for the U.N.’s current scrambling to reform.
Even so, said Brown, “I am convinced that the very public pillorying of Mr. Kompass is having and will continue to have a serious chilling effect on the reporting of abuses in peacekeeping missions.”
Very similar, and even more sinister, tales of cover up and retaliation, were presented by different witnesses at virtually the same time before a House International Affairs subcommittee.
One of those testifying was Aicha Elbasri, a longtime U.N. staffer who was posted to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur in 2012 and 2013, where, she said, she discovered “what I strongly believe is the U.N. cover up of crimes that may well amount to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes” committed by the Sudanese government, along with equally grave crimes by Sudanese rebels.
According to Elbasri, officials of the U.N. mission on the ground, among other things, “imposed a total news blackout” on a government massacre of civilians, told U.N. staffers not to report bombings of civilians unless they could actually see the bomb craters -- an impossibility -- and described civilians attacked by government forces as being caught in a “crossfire” with rebels.
The same cover up occurred on a broader scale back at peacekeeping headquarters in New York, she declared, where the U.N. Security Council itself was deprived of information about the atrocities. Worried about her safety after airing complaints about the dire situation, Elbasri resigned in 2013, and eventually passed on her revelations to Foreign Policy magazine.
“My experience of the U.N.’s attitude toward accountability is that it is inconsistent and the attitude of senior officials toward the risk of misconduct is one of denial,” testified Peter Gallo, a former U.N. investigator with the U.N.’s watchdog Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).
In addition, he observed, the U.N.’s own investigative arm at OIOS “has been compromised,” since it “is effectively controlled by the same senior management that it is supposed to be investigating for wrongdoing.”
So, what needs to be done?
Whistle-blower Elbasri’s solution is similar to one that has been offered for months by AIDS-Free World: investigations carried out by “a truly independent entity that is not part of the U.N. Secretariat, but reports directly -- and separately -- to the [U.N.] Member states.” She also suggested “an external independent mechanism for claims of retaliation against U.N. whistle-blowers.”
Elbasri further advocated that the U.S. start making aggressive use of a law passed by Congress in 2014 and again in 2015 that mandates 15 percent cuts in U.S. funding to U.N. agencies that are not implementing “best practice whistle-blower practices” to ensure that wrongdoing comes to light. So far, she noted, the law has been invoked once, for a “token amount.”
That medicine did not go down well among strong U.N. supporters at the hearings, including Jordie Hannum, a senior director of the Better World Campaign, one of the major non-government vehicles for bolstering support in the U.S. for the U.N. He advocated a course of diplomatic pressure and greater efforts to improve the quality of peacekeeping forces that was similar to what U.S. Ambassador Coleman advocated in the Senate -- and likewise urged no cuts in U.S. support for the U.N.
“While the U.S. must demand reforms on abuse and exploitation, one must not lose sight of the importance of peacekeeping missions,” he told legislators.
Similarly, Coleman told members of the Senate committee, “not one” of the abuse victims or their families she had personally interviewed on a recent trip to the Central African Republic wanted U.N. peacekeepers as a whole to go away.
That is not surprising, given the horrifying and violent conditions that usually inspire U.N. peacekeeping missions in the first place.
But by the same token, observed Brett Schaefer, a U.N. expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, “a U.N. peacekeeping operation may not be the best option for addressing every situation, particularly where there is no peace to keep.”
In other words, maybe the U.S. should not be as eager as it has been in the recent past to approve such missions in the first place. As Schaefer put it, “The pressure to ‘do something’ must not trump sensible consideration of whether a U.N. presence will improve or destabilize the situation or partner the U.N. with a morally repugnant government.”
One way of doing that would be to return to an agreed-on 25 percent cap on U.S. contributions to peacekeeping expenses -- a portion that has quietly swelled to more than 28.5 percent during the two-term Obama administration.
While agreeing that more pressure needs to be put on countries that supply peacekeeping troops to ensure that sexual wrongdoers are actually investigated, tried and punished, Schaefer also argued that the U.N. itself could do with some similar pressure, beyond the recently touted efforts of the Secretary General.
One way of doing that: make the U.N. itself actually pay when its actions, or those of its peacekeepers or staffers, cause pain, suffering and damage to civilians.
Currently, Schaefer observed, the U.N. “gives the appearance of avenues of redress for damages caused by U.N. action or inaction” through a so-called “standing claims commission,” which is included in every U.N. peacekeeping agreement with countries where the blue helmets operate.
No such commission, however, has ever been created, he noted. To overcome that evident inertia, he suggested that they be established automatically whenever a peacekeeping force is first created.
“Financial carrots and sticks have been effective in the past in spurring [U.N.] reform,” Schaefer observed. “Congress and reform-minded member states should not be reluctant to use such tactics.”
Especially, perhaps, when the full dimensions of the sex abuse problem seem to be expanding weekly.